Not a good time for Charter Change

“The administration, given its track record for the past five years, has lost any credibility to push for something as drastic as charter change.”

Once again, the House of Representatives has voted in plenary session to amend the economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution. In essence, the amendments will add the phrase “as provided by law” to the provisions restricting ownership and control of economic enterprises to Filipinos. This would effectively allow the Congress to lift such requirements according to its discretion based on its policy judgements. Thankfully, the approved proposals exclude ownership of land which will remain purely for Filipinos. But all the other sectors can now be opened if Congress so wished.

I do not consider such approval as the necessary step for charter change. At best, it only signifies the sense of the House of Representatives. Not until the Senate agrees to convene jointly with the House to become a constituent assembly can the process of charter change actually begin. That looks unlikely given the reluctance of many senators to take that necessary step, as well as the constraints imposed by the legislative and election calendar in the next eleven months as we inch nearer to the 2022 national elections.

Nevertheless, as the country and the rest of the world slowly transition into a post-pandemic global order, it is important to look into the potential consequences of such moves to change the Constitution. As my colleague Joy Reyes and I wrote last year, one need only to look at the things happening currently to know that changing salient provisions of the Constitution is not the most prudent thing to do. For example, we pointed out how removing the provisions on Filipino ownership will leave the country’s resources vulnerable, particularly with China taking interest in many of the Philippines’ assets. The United States might even be involved, and with escalating tensions between the US and China because of its trade war, then the Philippines might end up finding itself in the middle of two competing superpowers. By opening many essential services to foreign investors, we stand to lose. Coupled with federalism, there is a bigger tendency to further divide the already fragmented country.

We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and the end is far from sight, particularly because of the limited success so far in mass vaccination. Holding the campaign today will only serve to divide the country: both its fiscal resources and its people. The fight against the pandemic is a bigger concern to everyone and should receive the government’s highest attention. In a country already divided socio-economically and politically, a move like this will, instead of bringing the country together, potentially have disastrous results. The Duterte government should focus on the more important things right now—battling the pandemic, and ensuring that the Filipinos citizens are alive, well, with access to healthcare, and safe.

In another article, co-written with colleague Jayvy Gamboa, we pointed out that in whatever way we look at it, this charter change is a last-minute attempt to, at the very least, make true of the Duterte-popularized saying, “Change is coming.”

The failure of the Duterte administration to institutionalize long-term reforms, such as the change toward federalism, is a symptom of a public trust deficit—or the Filipino people simply are just not yet ready to commit to said reform. The administration, given its track record for the past five years, has lost any credibility to push for something as drastic as charter change.

We also said that this charter change is a salvage of what political muscle is left with the Duterte administration. The ability of the administration to gather political support for this admittedly grand move would then dictate how strong Duterte’s grip is with regard to his remaining political agenda as well as the looming election and opportunity for transfer of power. More than anything else, it is a litmus test of power.

We should not allow charter change to be the saving grace of this administration—or any other administration.

In charter change, it is important to know that Congress merely proposes amendments or revisions. Such proposed amendments that acquire the required votes will then be subjected to the ratification of the Filipino people. According to the Constitution, “Any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution […] shall be valid when ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite[.]” Votes in the said plebiscite will determine whether we agree to the new terms of our “social contract” or not.

As Filipino citizens, the sheer grandiosity of the political bureaucracy that revolves around charter change would tend to make us distant from the very process itself. Our affirmations and oppositions, or support and sentiments, may be included in the record or minutes of congressional deliberations, but may not be necessarily heard. But one thing is sacredly reserved to the people: that whatever Congress as Constituent Assembly proposes, only we can accept or reject.

Time and again, I have said that I favor charter change. But the timing must be right. For so many reasons, some of which I explain in this article, that cannot be today or in the near future.

Visit this website to access the article.

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